Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Major (and minor) Figures...

Here's more of the London log, although I think we'll take this in multiple-excerpt form. Incidentally, after my last entry, in which I mentioned that my Mom was forever predicting someone's death by crash (be it air or auto), a few people emailed me to wonder gently if ol' MM was just being foreshadowingly dramatic or whether my late mother--who died in a car crash--really was having some kind of weird premonitory thing going, even 20 years ago. The answer is: you don't know the half of it, brother, but you will, if we ever get through this. And for extra weirdness, note the date on the first entry:

11 September 1987

So there's a pounding on my door at the crack of dawn and it’s the miserable prick at the front desk of King's College, telling me I have a phone call. And it's my mother--first time I've talked to her since I arrived in London. She hasn't heard from me in days and is freaked out. I'm not sure why at first: I mean, I did call and leave a message the moment I had my stuff stashed at the College--otherwise how did she get the number?

But then it turns out she had a dream last night that I was flying in an airplane somewhere--to London? To home?--and it blew up or crashed into a building--I still wasn't fully awake and didn't get all the details. She tried to extract a promise from me that I won't fly anywhere while I'm here. I promised I'll take trains (whenever I can). But I was looking at brochures about student travel over the October midterm break and there are some awfully cheap flights...

I must tell you, by day's end I was wishing I was in a plane crash. I started with a trip to the school where I'll be taking classes, over at Kensington Park Gardens--a place I will hereafter refer to as "the Centre." The area was a bit crowded with tourists--some folks insist Shirley Maclaine is in the neighborhood [and she was, filming this]. Others say director Brian De Palma was skulking around [and he was there at the time, too, promoting the London premiere of this]. But I got into the Centre, got my Barclay's Bank account info and was astonished to discover that I will be expected to live, eat, pay rent, on a paltry 725 quid. I'm pretty sure that won't even cover my rent til December! Surely this must be a mistake.

So it was with some trepidation that I bought a London Streetfinder--after all, that's juice and a roll right there. But I'm sure it will be indispensable in the days to come.

Then it was time to register for classes, and my, what a shock. The professor who was going to be teaching the two journalism course that I'm qualified for has quit. Two of my classes--six key credits to my major--are not being offered. What the fuck am I going to do now?

I'll tell you what: I switched majors on the spot. I've decided to become an English major. After all, I've already got 12 more credits in Lit. than I need stacked up from my first two years at college. And, well, this IS England, so there's no shortage of English classes. Also, no waiting lists. So I signed up for:

English 256--Major Figures in British Literature--Austen, Blake, and Wordsworth, in other words.

English 342--Shakespeare--For four credits, it comfortably covers my last arts-and-sciences core credit requirements. Plus we get to see about six plays and get a field trip to Stratford thrown in too.

English 440 -- Restoration and the 18th Century--I think I can happily spend half my time wandering around London reading from Pepys.

English 465--The Realistic Novel (as opposed to the, um, fictional novel?) According to the syllabus, the course is being taught by someone I've actually heard of--William Cooper, a British writer my grandmother greatly admired in her youth (and will no doubt be surprised to find is still alive). Mr. Cooper includes one of his own books among the DOZEN we will be reading. Twenty pounds for his book. Christ--it better be signed!

Writing 315--Expository Writing--Already met the teacher--a woman from India who was ripping on the program director (who apparently had the temerity to criticize her accent). Seems like a pistol to me. Aside from an interesting reading list (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole sounds like fun), we'll also be required to keep a journal. Hey, I'm already at the head of the class.

Jesus, six more credits and I'll have a BA in English.

But that realization was the high point of the day, which, really, just got worse. Spent the whole rest of it on the subway--excuse me, the London Underground--no, excuse me, the Tube. With Betty and Veronica. We were a sadly silent and mismatched trio--Veronica in her stylish Laura Ashley coat, Betty in her photojournalist's vest and me, wearing my battered black jacket and an unfortunate salmon pink t-shirt (the only clean shirt in my duffel) that has earned me more jeers from skinheads than I ever hope to hear again.


[oh god!]

We got lost a lot. But at least we saw some flats. Okay, three of them. All holes. One of them, on Peter Court, was as close to third-world squalor as I ever hope to see. The walls were seeping. There was some kind of animal skin hanging over the one window (which looked out over a ventilation shaft) and it was crawling with bugs.

The other two were not much better. All of them were characterized by a distinct odor of curry and diapers, which I have come to call London Funk.

The ride back to King's College that night was a desperate one, I can tell you. Betty seems to blame me for failing to find a decent flat and spent most of the ride tearing me a new ass. Veronica is a stone. I sense this will not end well.

12 September

Well, that was fast. Last night, upon our return to the College, Veronica announced we were on our own (it was very dramatic. She delivered the line like a wounded actress, then turned on her heel and fwapped me in the face with the tail of her Laura Ashley overcoat. God, I love her), and by this morning at breakfast, we found out she was one of four flatmates in a second-floor place over in Bayswater somewhere. I loved her a little less, then, but not as less (least?) as Betty thought of her--or of me, for that matter. I thought she was going to reach across the table and stab me in the eye with her fork. is this MY fault?

Let's be clear: I am not Betty's father. Or husband. Or even her boyfriend. At this point, I'm barely her friend. Plus she's a grown woman--she's almost two years older than I, to tell the truth--why can't SHE spend her evenings making phone calls and setting up appointments to view flats (did I mention I've been doing that? I have. I'm almost totally out of change. And that was my food money)? I swear, I have all of the mental and emotional turmoil and obligations of a relationship here, with absolutely no physical paybacks.

Ah, maybe it's just as well. I'm too hungry these days to think about sex.


13 September

Today was the day the Centre offered a field trip to Stonehenge, one of the top five places I have promised myself I would visit before I die (the other four include Paris, the Great Pyramids, a little place in France called St. Vinnemer, and my grandfather's cousin's butcher shop in County Cork, Ireland). Leaving at 8 AM, the bus journeyed to Salisbury (home of Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is located, and perhaps even of the famous steak so often featured in frozen dinners and high school cafeterias). And there it is. Stonehenge. Holy shit.

The area is roped off, but you are still more than close enough to stand in silent awe, beholding this ancient mystery, this work of stone and human zeal.

Or so I imagine. Because I didn't go.

Instead, Betty and I decided to stay behind looking for flats. Forfeiting 5-pound deposits each for our seats on the bus, I might add. We found nothing--certainly nothing within our price range. In defeat, we trudged back to the Centre, hoping some new notices for flats-to-let had been posted.

But the Centre was closed, of course. Everyone had gone on the field trip.

Betty plonked herself on the steps, studiously ignoring me, which is why I don't mind telling you that while she was sitting there, she smoked her way through half a pack of cigarettes (that she smokes at all is something she doesn't want ANYONE to know, and I was appalled to discover it myself. And I'm going to ROOM with her?).

I wandered around the neighborhood. Walking is what I do when I need to gather my thoughts, although the noisy, dog-shit-strewn pavements of London were a far cry from the hills of New Hampshire, where I prefer to do my ruminating. Classes start day after tomorrow and we'll have almost no time then to find flats. Yet, King's College will kick us out in four days. Also, I'm starving, having avoided spending any money so I can afford rent. Assuming I can ever find a place. What to do?

I finally resolved that tomorrow I would go see the director of the place--she has office hours tomorrow morning--and throw myself on her mercy. I guess I'll plead Betty's case too. Because I'm a total fool, is why.

And just to prove that Fate is, like, this person who has her thumb up my ass, when I came back, Betty was hopping up and down on the Centre steps. She had just seen Shirley Maclaine walk by, say hello to her, then grab a cab and roar away. Not that Shirley is exactly the first celeb I'd like to meet--I'd prefer Kim Basinger--but still. After the excitement died down, I told Betty about my plans to see the director of the College and get our stay extended so we wouldn't be tossed on the street in a few days. Incidentally, my stomach was growling as loud as my voice. I think Betty took pity on me then, and offered me a cigarette, claiming it would curb my appetite. I have never smoked a ciggie before in my life, but...what the hell?

Well, of course, I took in a big lungful of smoke and gagged so expansively that Betty began laughing and couldn't stop. In fact, she laughed so hard, she farted--loud--and then I started laughing. I haven't heard a girl break wind since fifth grade. That's what I like about Betty--very down-to-earth, and charmingly one of the guys. But also very much her own woman. God, I love her.

I think that's when things really turned around. Because as we were recovering from our assorted fits, the bus from Stonehenge pulled up. Veronica popped out and came over to talk to us. She hadn't planned to go to Stonehenge that day, but it turned out there were a couple of seats open, so she went. Lucky, eh?

She was in high enough spirits--and I guess we looked pathetic enough there on the steps--that she told us there was a flat open in her new building. It was a basement flat and needed three roommates, but it was a nice enough place (nicer than most everything she'd seen with us), and if we could find a third person, we'd be set.

14 September

Boy, was it my day for meetings. First, I stopped in at the director's office and got her to let Betty and me stay for another week for 50 quid--including room and board (my stomach growled a hallelujah). I handed over my money and promised to have Betty come by with hers.

I learned something else very useful--starting today, about 200 more US students will be coming in to use King's College as their base of operations til they find flats. I talked to Betty and she volunteered to do up a notice asking for our third roommate--and she managed to convince the prick at the front desk to copy it for her so she could post it around the college.

Then, I was off on the Tube to the Bayswater stop, where I found my way to 20 Craven Hill Gardens and the basement office of the imposing Tasmir Ismail.


[My place was the second balcony in. Behind those gates on the pavement. Then down a flight of stairs, past a laundry room, through a sort of hallway/tunnel. See it?]

As I waited for my appointment, I couldn't help but notice that the door next to his office was partly open. I peeked in and discovered what I'm sure is the basement flat. It's clean enough, and only one wall is seeping. But it's just one bedroom (with two of the narrowest twin beds I've ever seen, and yet they take up half the room), the only closet is locked for the good reason that it contains all the guts of the building's elevator. There's one common kitchen/living space and one bathroom. How the hell will we fit three people in here?

I'll figure it out later (and I have a feeling that "figuring it out" means I'll be sleeping on the tiny, sagging couch in the common area). I met with Mr. Ismail. The flat was being cleaned and wouldn't be ready for occupation til Saturday; he agreed to hold the place for me for 48 hours. I raced back to King's College to update Betty, and found her in the main hall, having a conversation with what appeared to be a pile of laundry but actually turned out to be the most rumpled young man I have ever seen. And coming from me, that's saying something.

The fellow's name is J. He's from Manhattan. The upper East side. At my university, there are a lot of kids from that part of Manhattan. And while I don't want to get into stereotypes here, it's my experience that kids from that part of Manhattan have rather a better--or at least better-pressed--wardrobe than J. They also don't have slobby ketchup stains up and down the front of their shirt--and yes, their pants too. Also, they tend to have their heads jammed firmly up their asses. But J smiled warmly enough when Betty introduced me--actually, I thought he was going to try and hug me, but then it turned out he was just going in for a close handshake.

"I'm your new roomie, bro," he announced brightly, as Betty left us to get acquainted. "I need a place to crash when I'm in town and it might as well be with you guys." As I found out, J's international-study program seems to be a lot more focused on travel than actual study. Over the next 12 weeks, he'll only be spending about four of them in London. I understood immediately why Betty thought he was such a great catch. For two-thirds of the time, we'd be living in a two-flat. Good thing, too. I hadn't yet told Betty about the size of the place.

I hemmed and hawed for a moment, but then raised my one salient concern: money. Specifically, I'd need to deliver something over 1,200 pounds to Mr. Ismail--covering security deposit and first-month's rent for three people--in order to take possession of the flat. Jay smiled and produced a multi-colored wad of notes from a particularly deep wrinkle in his clothes. "Don't worry," he smiled. "I'm not just a student, you know. I'm a working man!"

This struck me as awfully strange. Before leaving, I had looked into the possibility of getting a part-time job in London, but work visas were virtually impossible to get.

"Er, and what is that you do?" I asked.

J suddenly got all cagey, looking this way and that, then lifted his ketchup-stained shirt to reveal a plastic baggie containing what looked like mashed chocolate cake.

"Need some hash, bro?" he asked.

Note to self: Do not tell Betty about this. After all, one smoker in the flat is bad enough.

But still...Oh my God. I HAVE A FLAT.

I am now a Londoner.

We'll be back soon with more London misadventures. Trust me, there were plenty of them.

From Somewhere on the Masthead


Well, apartment (or flat) hunting is something I didn't have to deal with during my England days, fortunately. Sounds like you had some interesting experiences, though! Looking forward to hearing about more of your time there.
Sounds like your Mom had lots of her own October moments.

The word verification this time is tronto. Anything important in your life regrading Ontario?
This comment has been removed by the author.
Is this Betty the same person who later becomes the entity known as BettyBob who doesn't want you to marry HLS?

Thanks for sharing your London journals.
The beginning of that September 11 entry is a little freaky.

Hashish Boy is an intriguing character :>

To answer the question of why Betty couldn't stay up all night making calls, I think sometimes it doesn't occur to women that they are capable of doing these things. Perhaps because there are always men around who eagerly jump in to do them for us. ;P Seriously, I think people need to stop cutting women so much slack. It doesn't help much with the independence factor. The best thing my husband ever said to me was "Do it yourself" ;>
Thanks for another great story from the life and times of Magazine Man. Hurry up with the next post, bro!
While I wish I had similar adventures when I was abroad, these are the stories/memories that make me cringe at ever letting my daughter leave the nest, let alone study abroad! Thank goodness I have about 17 more years before I really have to worry about it.
These London journals are going to come in handy, if for nothing else than a great way to get psyched up for my first visit there early next year. I can hardly wait to hear more!
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